Justice – Week 5

 

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

This week, I reflected on the connection between individuals and collectives, stimulated by two books, ‘La composition des mondes’ by anthropologist Philippe Descola, and ‘L’Enrichissement’, by sociologists Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre.

Justice must ensure that everybody receive their due. The primary question therefore must be, who is everybody? This is particularly relevant in the case of ecological justice, where the relationship between humans and non-humans is at stake. From the perspective of justice, if a natural element is endangered – a lake or an animal species – they could be considered as external objects that only matter inasmuch as their existence affects the well-being of various humans. Or, they could be considered as part of a structured collective, alongside other elements of the natural ecosystem, including humans. Justice, then, demands that their interest be taken into consideration, as much as that of individual humans.

At the basis of any reflection on justice is the question of distributing public wealth to members of the community fairly. The technical modalities of collective decision are therefore a crucial issue. Those who master rhetorical codes and understand procedures are at an advantage, and able to guide collective decision to their benefit. We should therefore always ask ourselves, to what extent does a certain protocol favour justice, or strength?

Does justice require that we follow formal established rules, or more general principles?  If I was to develop a personal relationship with an Uber driver and got them to drive me somewhere, without going through the system, would I be at fault? On the one hand, if I by-pass the system, I would replace an exploitative structure with direct human interaction; on the other, I would endanger a system offering stability to the social order. In a multicultural environment, these questions are difficult, as norms of behaviour in relation to the law vary.

The current state of things is justified by narratives anchored in the past: justice and history therefore go together. Further still, the structures giving value to things are themselves historically located. Modern industrial society produces large numbers of interchangeable specimens based on the same prototype, whose ownership is protected by law. This is a product of the European 19th century. Today’s discussions on copyright and piracy should be considered in this light: what they question is not an eternal right, but a certain historical construction.

Economic systems, and the way that various types of things are valued and priced, determine in turn the comparative advantage of those who control various types of things. The position we take in those economic systems will in turn determine our interest in advocating for change or preserving a certain state of things. Deliberately choosing to place ourselves in a position where we serve interests in contradiction with the common good is a question of justice. Beware, therefore, the risk of finding ourselves in a situation that seriously restricts our capacity for justice.

Justice regulates the mutual relationship between people as part of a collective. But who decides on our capacity to be part of that collective? When belonging requires physical access, who makes decisions on our capacity to remain part of a certain group, and what form of justice applies?

 

On landscapes and memories

The first time I took a train down from Beijing to Shanghai, one particular spot triggered a strong emotional reaction. It’s a range of mid-sized mountains, dragged at the top, some white stone exposed, dark pine or cypress trees dotting the flanks, among lower, yellower, shorter bushes. I have since gone through this pass a number of times. It stretches from Jinan to Tai’an, the backbone of China Eastern mountaing range. I have since realised why that emotional reaction. It looks incredibly similar to the mountains of Provence, the Cevennes north of Nimes, where my grand father stems from; the Alpilles, by the Rhone river, marking entrance to the Mediterranean rim; the Southern Alps, separating France and Italy; the Appennine, which I crossed many times going from florence to Bologna.

I Often speak of the parallel between China and the Mediterranean. Two sophisticated, old civilisations, both convinced of standing at the centre of the earth. Joyful, warm people. Centres of literary cultures. Elaborate merchant cultures. An eye for beauty. This landscape, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the physical counterpart of this more diffuse sense of alignment. And whenever I pass by, watching the mountains from the train window, I sense the depth of my connection to China. 

I felt it more broadly, during this trip, in the Hutongs of Beijing, where old people pull out chairs into the street at night and spend time enjoying the fresh air, greeting neighbours as they pass by, gossiping, playing cards, like my grand parents used to do when I was a kid. It brings back the warm, quasi-magical world of my holidays in provence, where life was happier, warmer, more social. Where you could stand outside the door, where people knew who you were, and the nights smelled of jasmine flower. This I fiound on the streets of Beijing. And as I head south to more metropolitan Shanghai, I feel as if I’m getting back to working life, leaving holidays, warmth and family behind.

On sitting and standing

Why have we chosen the sitting position as a modern default?

Last night, I went on a long walk to the beach, and today, I decided I would stand to work. And so I did, at home first, while I focused on tw0 simple tasks: learning how to use Endnote, and sorting old folders of research documents. I put my laptop on a fat book, the book on a stool, the stool on a table, and I stood in front of this improvised platform all morning, happily typing. Result: no sore shoulders, and a nice feeling in my stomach that I got a wee bit more toned.

The slogan of 2014 was ‘sitting is the new smoking’. It might echo still in other ears than mine. But as public places used to favour smokers over non-smokers, our social environment is entirely designed for sitters.

We may hold a fake belief that special artifacts are required for sitting, chairs, couches, or stools, while we can stand on our own two feet. Not so. I sit on the floor whenever I can. And if you stand and read, eat, or type, you want a space to lean the book, plate, or laptop. But not often will we find such standing set-ups, and so, defaulting into the shape that our environment proposes, we sit.

After I finished my morning work-from-home, I headed to my second office, in the QV food court. The place has been recently redone, and has very comfortable tables and chairs where you can sit for a whole afternoon without any cover charge. But there are only three tall tables where you could stand and rest a laptop, hidden under the main escalators, opposite the BreadTop bakery.

One of the tables was free. I pushed aside the white metal-mesh stool, set my computer on it, and stood for a couple of hours, drafting the outline of my thesis. Then I headed back one, and went on a long walk to North Fitzroy. And as I did, I spoke with my partner about replacing a large, red armchair in our living room with a standing station. It would certainly change my daily routines, inviting me to stand for breakfast, maybe dinner, or when friends come over.

But even as I can perfectly visualise the piece of furniture that I would need, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a friend’s place, I have no clue where I could buy it, or what its name would be. So much we made sitting our default posture.

 

How Translation can help you learn Chinese

So, I made it to the pages of Hacking Chinese, talking about the benefits of translation Chinese-English for language learning.

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

This was the introduction to my post – you can read the full piece here

Music I love

This is just a whimsical little post, sharing music that I love.

Celia Cruz, El Sabroso son Cubano

The Supremes, Where did our love go

Barbara, Ma plus belle histoire d’amour c’est vous

Chris Garneau, Hands on the Radio

Cheer Chen, 魚

στελιος καζαντσιδις, κουρασμενο παλικαρι

Chet Baker, I fall in love too easily

Getz & Gilberto, Desfinado

Radiohead, No Surprises

Madredeus, As Brumas do Futuro